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Johnston, Frances Benjamin (1864-1952)  
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This interest led to her fourth subject: buildings. Architects needed photographs of their buildings, and she was able to supply them with superb documentation. In 1927, she began a lengthy project to document colonial-era buildings in the South.

Supported by grants from the Carnegie Corporation, Johnston traveled throughout the South, documenting hundreds of buildings. She was honored for this work by both architects and historic preservationists. Many of the buildings she photographed were later destroyed. One of these is Uncle Sam Plantation in Louisiana, which she photographed shortly before it was demolished in 1940.

Retirement in New Orleans

Johnston first photographed New Orleans in 1938. She fell in love with the city and decided to retire there. She loved its unique architecture, its French heritage, its European ambience, and the bohemian camaraderie she found in the city's French Quarter.

After living at 812 Dauphine Street and 929 Dumaine Street, she purchased a century-old building at 1132 Bourbon Street, a Greek revival townhouse that had been built by Henry Clay's sister-in-law. She moved into the house in August 1945, and named it Arkady (Arcadia). It would be her cherished home for the rest of her life.

The house is in the residential end of Bourbon Street, but by the time Johnston settled there the street had already become known for its lively nightlife. She wrote a friend, "They tell me if you start eleven blocks over--at Canal and Bourbon--and hope to drink your way with a stop-over at every life-saving station on the way, you won't get to 1132 Bourbon for about six months."

Johnston's Professional Achievement

Johnston bequeathed her work and papers to the Library of Congress, a collection of 20,000 photographs and 17,000 documents, so a substantial record of her professional life remains. Her early photographic donations became the nucleus of the Library of Congress's Pictorial Archives of Early American Architecture.

As a photographer, Johnston's accomplishments were many. Most obviously, she brought artistry from her classical art training to the new field of photography. Her pictures are marked by an unusual symmetry and clarity.

A photograph she composed of six Hampton students repairing a staircase is so carefully choreographed that it becomes a stunning study in the artful application of balance. Her Tuskegee photographs of students stacking hay and cultivating onions evoke the dignity and monumentality that painter Jean-Francoise Millet gave to French farm workers.

Johnston is also admired for her use of light and shadow. Even in the early days of black and white photography, her use of variant degrees of gray tones provided infinite shadings.

In addition, Johnston was responsible for technical innovations. She received national attention as early as 1892 for her photographs inside Mammoth Cave. To provide adequate lighting for this project she devised a mixture of magnesium and potash to create "an explosive flash." Similarly, in 1909, she imaginatively used electric spotlights to photograph the interior of the New Theatre in New York City. Three years later she developed what she called "color photo-transparencies," very much like large slides that were designed to be framed and hung so that light would pass through them.

Johnston's versatility is also an important aspect of her achievement. She excelled as portraitist, social documentarian, and photographer of both gardens and architecture.

Johnston's Personal Life

Less is known about her personal life than her professional life. She never married and there is no record of any romantic relationship with any man, although many men were friends and colleagues.

Her most significant relationship seems to have been with Mattie Edwards Hewitt. Early in the twentieth century, Johnston moved to New York. For a period of about six years, Hewitt worked with her in her studio and they lived together there. Existing letters from Hewitt to Benjamin are filled with passionate and sensual endearments.

Although some scholars dismiss these endearments as merely expressions of friendship, phrases such as "Ah, I love you better than ever you know" and "I slept in your place and on your pillow--it was most as good as the cigarette you lit and gave me all gooey" indicate a very intense relationship rooted in some level of physicality. While the extent of their physical intimacy may be debated, the two women certainly shared a romantic friendship.

In Johnston's last years in New Orleans a neighbor named Mrs. Tom Sawyer became her caretaker. The exact nature of this relationship is not certain, but clearly it was an affectionate one.

Johnston left her home (the most valuable part of her estate) to Sawyer and Sawyer made it her home until she died in the early 1980s. The house was then left to a gay man, Clyde Webb, who had, in turn, been Sawyer's caretaker.

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